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Backpacking On Cape Cod

Updated: Feb 19

I know what you're thinking and I had the same feeling when I first learned about it. Backpacking? On Cape Cod? Surely you must be kidding. Contrary to what we may think, there is indeed a rare and great backpacking opportunity on Cape Cod for those who open themselves to the idea.

As I write this, part of the country is experiencing some of the coldest temperatures recorded due to a Polar Vortex. Recordings so cold it even beats out the current temp in Antarctica. Though the fringe effects aren't as severe where I am, a balmy -25F, I found myself looking back at a solo warm weather overnight trip I took to the area of Sandy Neck (circled in yellow below).

After picking up a NatGeo map of the Cape, planning with my research and assembling my gear for the adventure, I was ready to go. My trip began on a early afternoon in August with a 3 hour-ish drive from Reach Your Summit's home base in northern CT. Traffic wasn't too bad luckily and I was able to cross the Sagamore Bridge in a reasonable amount of time. I arrived to Sandy Neck, parked my car, paid $20 for my camping permit and began toward the trail nearby.

A video of a solo backpacking trip I took at Sandy Neck in August 2019.

What To Expect On A Sandy Neck Backpacking Trip?

Greeted with a welcome sign and a warm sun, I entered the trail and had about 4 miles to hike toward my primitive campsite which was located off of Trail 4. Normally 4 miles is not too difficult, but throw a fully loaded pack and sand in place of dirt and you're in for a nice little challenge.

About 5 minutes into my hike on the Marsh Trail, the noise from traffic was drowned out by the sound of long blades of bright green grass rustling in the wind. Trees began to spread out more and beautiful marshland began to take over. Hard packed sand loosened more beneath my feet with each step.

As the terrain softened up, the views expanded but left an element of surprise around every corner. I had slowed my pace down in an effort to conserve energy and relish the experience. My trail runners were also forcing impact on my lower body due to the sand getting deeper. It was time for them to go.

I decided to tie my laces off to each other and hang my shoes from my neck. The decision showed improvement immediately. My pace increased and I didn't have to worry about my shoes filling up with sand every few minutes. I was also happy to have kept my footwear easily accessible as there were a few spots where rock beds took over the sand.

Mountain peaks on trails in other parts of the northeast were replaced with towering sand dunes as starlings drifted back and forth in unique formation. The ecology on Sandy Neck is diverse. Along with the dunes and marshlands, I also enjoyed maritime forest, beach and salty air.

Views stretched out for miles across vast open marshlands. Aside from a few private beach homes and cabins off of the Marsh Trail, this land is pristine and very fragile. Practicing Leave No Trace principles are important for any hiker, especially in places like this. I passed a few signs during this trip which served as a reminder and noted a hefty fine for those who fail to do so.

I arrived to the primitive camp area with about an hour of daylight to spare. A 5 gallon jug full of fresh water provided by the park rangers was a welcome sight. The late summer sun had taken its toll and fresh water is hard to come by since these sites are right near the ocean. If you plan on making this trip, be sure to have 2-3 liters of water, like I had, before you leave the trailhead. There will be a couple of shady spots along the way, but in most cases there is constant sun exposure.

Winds picked up to around 15 mph as a storm was expected for the following day. I chose to setup on a lush bed of pine needles with surrounding trees acting as a wind block. Once I had settled in, I decided to walk a couple hundred feet down to the water to cool off and catch the sunset.

The water was refreshing. The sights and solitude, revitalizing. I was amazed that I had the beach all to myself on a summer evening. After a swim, I sat for a while and watched the sun begin to fade away with another day.

As the final moments of light drew near, I made my way back and caught a glimpse of the moon rising on the opposite side from above the dunes. I arrived back to my camp, had a dinner of Thai Curry rice and tea, followed by some Sour Patch kids for dessert. The wind continued throughout the night and offered great ventilation with my shelter.

The following morning was foggy and misty due to the impending storm. I fired up my MSR Pocket Rocket stove and made some coffee from the comfort of my sleeping bag after a good nights rest. Having the whole camp area to myself was rare and rewarding, as I shared it with a couple of coyotes heard calling in the distance. I packed up my gear, finished my coffee and began to make my way 4 miles back to the car. Trying to beat the storm was one motivator. The other was a backpacking fundamentals presentation I was giving to the public within a few hours from the time I left camp.

The hike back was enjoyable in a different way. The cool breeze and cloud cover felt great as I pushed through the sand. I could smell the storm approaching and feel the change in the atmosphere. The hot terrain from the day before was cooled to the touch as I made each step.

About a mile into the hike I had also spotted coyote tracks. Most likely from those I heard calling during the night.

The trails on Sandy Neck are not blazed, but they are well maintained and relatively easy to follow. I also carried a basic map I picked up at the ranger station to use in conjunction with my NatGeo map if needed. The side trails were marked which helped with navigation and staying in the designated hiking area. You can also find and print the basic map by visiting here.

Sandy Neck is not only a part of the National Seashore, but it is also designated as a Cultural Historical District. It offers a backpacking experience unlike any other in the New England area and is one I recommend.

Have you hiked or camped in Sandy Neck? What was your experience like?

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